At the time my family fled Iraq, (back in the 1970’s) there were no political/religious killings under the regime. At least I don’t remember my father mentioning anything. This was a few years before Saddam came to power.
We left under the pretense of “vacation,” taking only what would fit in a few suitcases, and only those things that would not raise suspicion of the airport guards. We declared asylum when we got to Greece. The Greek government, however, wouldn’t allow us to stay there permanently, and so my father applied for immigration to several countries but they all turned him down. The story of how we were able to apply to immigrate to America is very long so I won’t go into that right now. I just wanted to give a brief background on the state Christians have been in, in the Middle East for a long time now.
When my father was being interviewed by the American embassy in Greece, they asked him how he can claim persecution when he had a job, he wasn’t beaten or put in prison, or experiencing what we usually think of as “persecution.” I remember my father telling me that he looked at the interviewer and said something to the effect of, “yes, but there is still the persecution of this,” pointing at his head. What he was trying to get across to this American who had no experience of what it was like to be under an authoritarian regime, (no matter how secular) is that Middle Eastern Christians are very familiar with Islam’s subversion and persecution through means other than those which are outright physical. Persecution of the the mind, political pressure, being passed over for jobs or promotions because you’re a Christian, false witness, contrived school grades so as to ensure that the top of the class is a Muslim, and so on. Christians in the Arab world have been immersed in that culture for centuries, and know all the dirty little tricks that get pulled.
My dad was right, it was just a matter of time before outward physical persecution would happen. Now we all know Sudan has been killing Christians for a long time, but this always goes under the guise of civil war. More importantly, in terms of status, it is not considered one of the more “Westernized” Arab countries, hence, it was expected and understood. (As weird as a notion as that seems to American ears.) There seems to be a hierarchy of sorts within the Arab nations as far as how much Western culture that country has imbibed. I’ve always been told by family and Arab friends that the more secular and/or Westernized an Arab country is, the more freedoms it gives to its Christian citizens. So for instance in the 1970’s, Iraq, having been a commonwealth of Great Britain (from WWI to 1932) was one of the more “Westernized” Arab countries along with Lebanon and Turkey. So there is this connection, which militant Muslims are actually correct on. That is, as Western ethos, philosophy and culture started infiltrating into the Arab universities it exhibited itself in a type of temperance of the local Muslim culture. (There is a complete body of study that can be done in this area if some Christians had it in mind, it is a complex and beautiful subject when viewed from a specifically Reformed worldview.) I’m going to stop here because I want to bring the discussion back to persecution.
My parents have Christian friends or have heard of relatives of friends who have been kidnapped for money by local Islamic gangs in Baghdad. Everyone knows that Christians of any means have left the country, and they are a good source of ransom. These family contacts in Iraq tell of rapes, burglaries, and overall terror in going about their daily lives.
These stories from Iraq are so far all about “unofficial” nongovernmental persecution, but many of us believe it is only a matter of time. The government of Iran has now convicted a Christian pastor and sentenced him to death. His crime? Leaving the Muslim faith to become a Christian. Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani has been on our church’s prayer list for a while. Here is a Fox News article on the most recent update on his situation. Pray for Christians in those nations.
UPDATE: If you arrived here because of the link from Challies’ blog, Welcome! Thank you to Tim Challies for the link. Matt Smethurst over at The Gospel Coalition wrote a post about Youcef Nadarkhani. There were some comments concerning rumors about his orthodoxy because of his ties to a non-Trinitarian Pentecostal sect. You can read my response in the comments section. The fact still remains that the name of Christ can not be spoken in some of these countries without persecution.